Enjoy your tiny payout: The weird world of tech class action lawsuits

Class action lawsuits: they make millions for lawyers, but often leave tech plaintiffs with nothing to show for it but tiny checks and miscellaneous geegaws. Here are some of the weirdest.

delicious but dumb

Eating a healthy breakfast can help your children pay attention in school, but that doesn't mean eating Frosted Mini-Wheats makes them smarter -- or so a judge decided in a class action lawsuit brought by parents enraged over false advertising. The plaintiffs got $15 apiece, the lawyers got millions, and Kellogg's got a lesson. But weird class-action lawsuits aren't just for breakfast; the tech world is littered with them, and the strange incentives and rewards they produce make for fun and bizarre side notes in our industry. Take a trip with us through the halls of class-action tech justice.

Who wouldn\'t want to get some of these in the mail?

In 2012 a spate of people who had advertised using Google's AdWords service started getting checks from the online ad giant for tiny amounts, ranging from a few dollars to a few cents. Why would a huge company mail checks for less than the face value of the stamp on the outside of the envelope? It was so weird that many worried that they were being scammed. In fact, the miniscule checks were part of a $20 million settlement over Google making it look like you were opting out of buying ads on third-party sites even if you really weren't.

Is this laptop sadly too under-RAM\'d to think straight?

It was 2009, and most people had decided Vista was a lost cause and were waiting for the imminent release of Windows 7. But Lora and Clay Wolph wanted a Windows laptop now, so they bought one from Acer. Acer, in what may have been some kind of attempt to show its contempt for the hated operating system, was selling Vista machines with less RAM than Microsoft's recommended minimum, with predictably terrible results. One lawsuit, four years, and two Windows versions later, anyone similarly victimized can get replacement RAM if they're still stubbornly using their under-RAM'd Acer; the rest of you will have to settle for a $10 check or a 16 GB flash drive.

Haha, remember THESE?

In 2005, when Netflix was all about DVDs by mail, the company got in hot water by advertising "unlimited" rentals (physically impossible, due to science) and "one-day delivery" (also impossible, due to the Post Office). To make things up to wronged customers Netflix agreed to offer a free upgrade -- if they had been on a three-discs-at-a-time plan, they'd be bumped up to four. The catch was, the "free" part of the upgrade lasted a month, but afterwards those four discs would keep coming, and you'd get charged for them unless you actively downgraded. Thus, what could have been a legal defeat was turned into a clever opportunity to get customers to pay more.

Not as embarassing as dropping it in the toilet, but will still void your warrantee

If you accidentally drop your iPhone in the toilet, Apple thinks you should feel bad about it, and they won't give you your money back even if it's under warranty. Surreptitious toilet-dunkers are ratted out by a Liquid Submersion Indicator (LSI), which turns a shameful red upon contact with water. Unfortunately, the LSI also reacts to sweat, and can't prove that liquid damage was the culprit that killed a phone. Apple ended up having to pay out $53 million dollars to people who felt they had been wrongfully denied iPhone replacements.


One of the '00s most notorious gaming controversies revolved around the "Hot Coffee" mod, a hidden sexually explicit minigame within Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Even though the mod couldn't be played without the user downloading third-party code, consumer advocates claimed that the game should've been rated "Adults Only" as a result, and after much wrangling Rockstar Games agreed to pay between $5 and $35 to everyone who bought the game andwho was outraged by the sex hidden in came dedicated to gruesome violence. Only 2,676 applied for the rebate, but the lawyers sure did make plenty of money.

Or you could buy from an actually good pizza place, just sayin\'
REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

Do you like Papa John's pizza, for some reason? Did you order Papa John's pizza using your mobile phone only to later get spammy text messages advertising more Papa John's pizza? Well, those text messages violated federal law, and despite Papa John's claim that people who got the texts had opted in and anyway it was the franchisees who did it, they're giving out coupons for more Papa John's pizza to those who were wronged. Enjoy!

This is not Michagin, if you can\'t tell, but ... still relevant?

A class-action lawsuit against a Michagin McDonald's didn't start off being about tech. It started out about Chicken McNuggets -- specifically, McNuggets that were advertised to the large local Muslim community as being halal (prepared in accordance with Muslim dietary laws) but weren't. When the local McDonald's franchise settled by donating money to an Arab-American history museum instead of refunding those who ate the unholy nuggets, local activist Majed Moughni got mad and posted about it to a Dearborn-area Facebook page he managed. Eventually the judge in the case ordered him to take down his intemperate posts and instead post court-approved material -- which gave rise to a whole separate online free speech dispute.

Large TV is large, but is its picture hi-def enough?

In 2007, Sony's $3,000 Grand Wega SXRD rear-projection TV was on the cutting edge, offering 1080p resolution. It was so cutting edge, in fact, that it didn't actually offer 1080p resolution if you were, say, trying to connect a computer or a Blu-Ray player or something else that actually created hi-def video. It's been six years, and everyone's probably bought new TVs by now, but if you're still mad maybe you'd like a gift card for $60 to 1$80 worth of Sony electronics? Let us know what exactly $60 worth of Sony electronics looks like. It probably looks like a very small portion of an expensive television set.


Out of fuel

Would you be shocked -- shocked -- to discover that the calorie counts from some gadget on your wrist that can sort of tell when you're running or walking or just moving your arms aren't 100% accurate? Well, bad news: the Nike+ FuelBand apparently did not deliver accurate step or calorie counts. For your trouble with this $120 gadget, Nike is willing to offer you a $25 gift certificate or $15 is cold, hard cash.

A cruel joke

Rust Consulting isthe company that actually does the payment processing for many class action settlements of the sort described here, and needs to juggle millions of dollars in various accounts. Still, when a computer glitch caused checks sent out for one such settlement to bounce, it was extremely poor form -- especially when the people receiving the checks had already been screwed over by banks who had improperly foreclosed on their homes, which is what the class action suit was about in the first place. Points for irony, we guess?